Ever since role-playing games have been around, people have wanted to insert themselves into their adventures. Gamers often spend time carefully choosing a class, a fighting style, dialogue options that reflect their own wishes, or a starter storyline that may affect their gameplay. They may spend hours customising their character’s appearance and clothing, making sure that they can relate to their avatars on the highest level. Being able to relate to my in-game character in a role-playing game is very important to me, as it greatly improves immersion and enhances my experience.
When it comes to Nintendo… well, they’re a Japanese company. Their core audience is mostly Japanese, and the majority of their Western fans are fair skinned. It shouldn’t be this way, but they aren’t particularly invested in creating authentically diverse casts in their games. A few dark-skinned characters exist, but they’re often side characters and easily forgotten. Nintendo’s attitude towards making relatable and realistic Black/PoC characters is also evident in character customisation options in their games, which is very lacking. Though many cross-platform games with extensive character customisation options exist, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Outer Worlds, I’m going to focus on Nintendo’s Miis, Animal Crossing, and Pokémon, which while technically developed by Gamefreak is published by Nintendo.
The Mii and Wii Era
Nintendo released the Wii in 2006 along with the pack-in title, Wii Sports. The Wii’s entire schtick, besides motion controls, was being able to play in games as yourself with the new Mii feature. Players were encouraged to make characters for the whole family so that everyone could see a representation of themselves in games like Wii Sports and Wii Play. Unfortunately, the lack of diversity showed here as well. The same six skin colours showed up: three fair, one “medium” (kinda?), two “deep”, and the usual barrage of straight/wavy hairstyles in every imaginable setting, but only a few poorly done curly hairstyles, if you can even call them that. Never one to be out of the spotlight, the terrible dreadlocs and cornrows made their debut here.
Miis were also part of the Wii U and 3DS features, but no noticeable changes occurred to make character creation and customisation more relatable for Black people and other PoC. On the Switch, skin tones increased to 10 colours (WOW!), but hairstyles didn’t change much. I find it hilarious that there are literally over one hundred different colours and shades available for hair, eyes and lips in the Switch Mii maker, but asking for more than 10 skin tones is asking for too much. A lot of my friends and I ended up choosing either Bad Dreadlocs, a Type 3 curly short bob, or a slicked-up bun in a desperate attempt to look like ourselves. Even the newer hairstyles that are supposed to look like curly hair just look… wrong.
Animal Crossing, as a franchise, has been simply about living your life. You, the character, get to dictate your friendships, your appearance, the interior of your home, and what the natural aspect of your town looks like, such as flowers and trees. In past games, from Dōbutsu no Mori on the Nintendo 64 to Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS, you had to answer a series of questions to determine your facial features, such as eye colour and shape. A red, triangular nose was given to all players, and could not be changed.
From Animal Crossing: Wild World on the Nintendo DS to New Leaf on the 3DS, the only way to change your skin tone was to stand outside in the sun during a certain time of year in order to achieve a “tan”. The tan could only be maintained by playing outside in-game regularly during the day, and could quickly fade by using an umbrella, wide-brimmed hat, or staying indoors in your town. For players with darker skin tones, the only time of the year that your skin colour could reflect your own (to a degree) was in the summer, and it was tough to maintain. For a game that claims to be about immersion and making your character and environment your own, it was pretty disheartening to see.
Wild World started the trend where players could change their hairstyle at Shampoodle, a salon run by a pretty pink poodle named Harriet. Harriet would ask the player a series of questions about their personality, similar to the questions asked by Rover or Kapp’n when determining the player’s face at the beginning of the game. The answers given to Harriet would determine the style and colour of the player’s hair. There was, like… one option for actual curly hair. In the mobile spin-off, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, the hair selection wasn’t much better, however, players could obtain wigs through events or fortune cookies that featured some curly hairstyles, I guess. Nothing spectacular.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons changed player customisation quite a bit, asking players to choose a passport picture that allowed them to choose their eye colour, nose shape, and hair style. However, noses remained tomato red and looked jarring against the deepest skin tones. Skin tone selection consists of four fair skin tones, two “medium” skin tones and two “deep” skin tones, which can appear to be a bit washed out/ashy in some lighting settings. As for hair styles, it was a bit of an improvement from New Leaf. I did see the inclusion of a fade with curly hair, and dreadlocs which despite looking … weird, are a start. Unfortunately for feminine characters who did not sport locs, there are no hair textures present in available hair styles for anything beyond “wavy”. There are no braids, no puffs, and no afros. Nintendo saw the demand for more inclusive skin tones, but the hole in the hair style variety is gaping. Players like Taniesha Bracken-Hucks have even created petitions to include more afro-centric hairstyles in Animal Crossing, providing excellent examples that make my heart flutter.
You can find her petition here!
Those of you who know me, know that Animal Crossing is my absolute jam, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I realised how strange and disappointing it was to be forced to play as an allegedly relatable character whose hair and skin tone definitely did not reflect my own or those of my friends in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was a really sad realisation to have.
The Pokémon franchise has been a bit slow when it comes to representation and character customisation. There was no option to play as a girl until Pokémon Crystal, when Gamefreak seemed to realise that girls enjoyed playing video games as well. However, there was only one static option for “boy” and “girl” up until Pokémon X and Y, where players could choose one of three trainers, two of which had fair skin and one which had “medium” skin, which is a stretch. Players could change their hair at salons around Lumiose, but there were absolutely no hair textures beyond type 2 “wavy” hair. This continued into Pokémon Sun, Moon, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, except that there were now a grand total of four (!) skin tones to choose from: two fair, one “medium”, and one “deep”. The hair colour “black” was actually a dark grey, which looked fine on white/fair characters, but made darker characters look as if they had rolled around in ashes before leaving the house. The only traditionally “black” hair style was cornrows, which looked super bad and not at all realistic.
In Pokémon Sword and Shield, more hairstyle options are available, though it’s not much better. There is one Type 3 “curly” afro available for feminine characters, and a Caesar cut for masculine characters, which looks like a low cut/fade. Otherwise, there’s just the same ol’ cornrows, which look like Play-Doh sausages wrapped around the player’s hair.
Nintendo has been doing better with skin colour options over time (though there is a lot of room for improvement), but the hairstyle selection for Black/PoC players is abysmal. It’s all pretty frustrating, really, as I can’t help but feel like it reinforces colourist and racist standards, where Black/PoC people can technically exist… as long as they have “nice” and “presentable” hair. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines where Afro-Caribbean/Black people make up 66% of the population, it’s kind of rough to see my peers feel like they can’t truly be themselves in Nintendo games. Pokémon games are staples for gamer kids, and they definitely deserve to finally be able to authentically role play in what’s supposed to be an RPG franchise. I mean, it’s 2020! Surely a family-friendly company like Nintendo can put in more effort to allow for all types of families to be represented in their games, right? The closest thing we’ve gotten to that is Hop’s family in Pokémon Sword and Shield, where they are a mixed-race family. I loved seeing that, and would not only like to see more families like my own, but create characters that look like me and my family.
I also want to mention that while I only highlighted features like skin tone and hair style/type, I am aware that Nintendo needs to offer a wider variety of body types, LGBT+ friendly features and accessibility options. Please, Nintendo, we’re here, we’re waiting, and we’d love to be included in the many instances where your signature attention to detail is paid.
Have you had trouble creating characters that best represent who you are? What are your experiences? Let me know in the comments!